There are occasions in theatres – I find they also occur sporadically in art galleries and are virtually guaranteed at the opera – when one wonders whether the failing is mine. My evening watching The Woman in Black was one such instance.
Perhaps, I mused, it is me, rather than the ghoulish figure at the heart of Susan Hill’s thriller, who is dead on the inside? Judging by the squeals, nervous laughter and one delightful utterance of “Shiiiiiiiit” from those around me in the stalls, fellow audience members were certainly more immersed in this adeptly-performed fright fest than I was. My plus one had jangling nerves before we even sat down. Once the show began, she was so perpetually convinced that something terrible was about to happen that she even assumed a genuine technical fault that temporarily stalled the action was a staged precursor to some malevolent surprise. It is, therefore, possible that I am missing a trick when I say that this production is both very enjoyable and entirely dispensable.
Robert Goodale and Daniel Easton make for an engaging double act as Arthur Kipps, the elderly lawyer trying to exorcise his fears of a dreadful curse, and the actor he hires to help him act out his terrible memories. The action becomes more engrossing, and the tension more palpable, once the pair stop breaking the fourth wall by reminding each other that they are acting out Kipps’ memoirs and get on with doing so. The staging is minimal, with plenty of smoke and torchlight for straight-up Gothic ambience, and the “Boo” moments are suitably jumpy, although they rely – in the manner of many good ghost stories – as much on audience anticipation as on very much actually happening.
A concluding twist could be seen barrelling down the tracks for two-thirds of the play, which is not a fatal flaw, but as a result the play’s final lines felt under-powered and Stephen Mallatratt’s tightly-written, two-hour adaptation rather fizzles out rather than ending with a bang (or a scream). My friend looked almost relieved. Those around us swapped notes on what they thought had been the scariest bits, and headed off into the night having evidently enjoyed their trip to the theatre. Perhaps there is no greater point to a performance than this. The Woman in Black has been running in the West End for three decades now, and is still delivering touring iterations such as this one to packed houses around the country. It is no longer especially innovative; it doesn’t stoke debate or leave a huge impression. But it is more fun than plenty of shows that do. That’s the trick.
The Woman in Black is at Liverpool Playhouse until February 1, 2020. More information: www.everymanplayhouse.com